Perfectionism Key to Competing with China

George Kennan, a former U.S. diplomat who died recently at the age of 101, achieved fame with a 1947 contribution to Foreign Affairs journal published under the pseudonym “X” and titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Commenting on a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during what would turn out to be the Cold War, the father of the containment doctrine, concluded: “Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.”

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the United States passed the test–countries in Eastern Europe chose to side with Western democracy symbolized by the United States rather than communism.

Of late, an increasing number foreign policy experts in the United States are focusing on U.S. relations with China in comparison with U.S. rivalries with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. For instance, David Lampton, dean of faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of Chinese studies at the Nixon Center, wrote an article in The Boston Globe on March 13 titled “The China challenge–Is America headed for second place?” He said: “China’s challenge is an unfolding, multidimensional development that will last decades and could prove far more productive than the earlier Soviet-American contest…To address this question one must examine the building blocks of national power and competitiveness: national investment and savings, education, health, and sound, legitimate governance…If Chinese competition can push America to make its own needed adjustments, this is to be welcome, albeit painful.”

In the article, Lampton compared the relative strengths of the two countries in each field by citing relevant data and facts.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, also touched on China in his March 17 piece, “Homeland Insecurity,” warning of the danger of a vicious cycle of allowing China to keep financing a large part of the snowballing U.S. deficit. He wrote: “What China might do with all its U.S. T-bills (government bonds) in the event of a clash over Taiwan is a total wild card that we have put in Beijing’s hands.”

It had been a foregone conclusion–which was then endorsed by sustained rapid growth of China’s economic and military strength–that the United States would be competing with China following the end of the Cold War. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States kept the Washington-Beijing contest on the sidelines for the time being.

Over the short period from the end of the Cold War to the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy, the United States considered Japan a potential threat. In an article prior to his famous contribution to Foreign Affairs’ summer 1993 edition, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington focused on Japan as an economic threat to the United States.

“The Clash of Civilizations” had little to do with civilizations–it was motivated primarily with the national interest and strategy of the United States. In other words, Japan, China and the Islamic world, in that order, came across Huntington’s mind when he was conceiving of possible new threats to the United States after disposing of the Soviet threat following four decades of confrontation.

Just before Huntington wrote “The Clash of Civilizations,” he explained to me his upcoming thesis. I remember having commented to him, “It’s quite similar to zanshin in kendo.” He did not exactly seem unhappy to hear my comment. Zanshin refers to the winner’s action immediately after scoring an ippon (decisive stroke) victory to express his readiness to fight back whenever necessary–instead of raising arms in a victory pose. The moment one becomes triumphant can be the moment one is most vulnerable to an enemy’s attack.

I have renewed admiration for the energy of U.S. intellectuals. I particularly respect them for their forward-looking attitudes toward making the United States a country with greater values by facing new challenges as tests provided by Providence. Their attitudes obviously reflect a Christian tradition.

Now let me touch on Japan. We do have innumerable writings on China’s threat. However, none of them set forth Japan’s nation-building strategy for surviving future competition.

At this juncture, the first thing that occurs to me is the issue of education. I am afraid Japan will definitely lose out to China if things are left as they are now. The standard of education in China of late is astonishingly high.

For example, I am often lost in admiration when I meet Chinese people with a good command of Japanese they have developed at universities in China. Honestly speaking, their Japanese skills are superior to those of Americans who have attended Japanese-language courses of U.S. universities–they are as different as university from middle school. Of course, Chinese can read kanji characters but this is not enough to explain why they have such well-developed Japanese-language skills.

Supposedly, a similar gap must exist between the English-language skills of Japanese and Chinese studying in the United States–in favor of the Chinese. We should no longer convince ourselves it is natural for China to have many bright people because of its huge population. What does matter is the overwhelming difference between Japan and China concerning the time and energy devoted to education by each student. Behind this difference between the two countries is a gap in motivation for learning. In China, one’s future depends entirely upon how hard one works. There also exists a patriotic motivation for restoring the prestige of China as a first-class nation. These kind of circumstances must certainly be true of other fields of education and technological research and development.

In China, the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1978 caused a considerable vacuum in education. As a result, Japan is not behind China as far as the generations of the mid-40s or older are concerned. But new generations overtake earlier ones–it is a matter of time before we see such a natural demographic development happen–and Japan will obviously be a loser to China year after year in the field of intellectual property.

What should the Japanese do to avert such a fate? First and foremost, our society should change itself into one where people study harder, with a clear motivation for excelling in learning. Not long ago, Japan was such a society, where the best student in the class would assume the post of homeroom president and be beloved by the teacher and respected by every classmate, with a great career open for him or her. This is gone, but remains common and valid in other places in the world.

Japan has a history of a civilian administration system, enabling diligent children born to poor families to rise up the social ladder to the top tier of the country. A typical example is Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), a Confucian poet and politician in the Edo period (1603-1868), who was renowned for pouring buckets of water over himself as a child to stay awake and continue studying.

During and after the Meiji era (1868-1912), there also emerged a patriotic motivation to work hard in order to enable Japan to survive an era of imperialism by keeping it from being prevailed over by foreign countries.

Our country’s tradition does not stop at the elite class. Each common citizen works conscientiously, a perfectionist trait that is still markedly different from the Chinese or Americans. In fact, Japan has accumulated the world’s highest degrees of “monozukuri” (manufacturing) techniques.

The Japanese have made their society so mutually trusting and law-abiding that women can safely walk alone on streets in major cities late at night, a rare urban environment in the world.

Following the Jiyu-Minken Undo (Movement for Political Freedom and Popular Rights) of the 1880s–shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868–Japan achieved its own democracy in the Taisho era (1912-1926). The professed aim of the U.S. occupation was the “revival” of Taisho democracy. Based on such historical developments, Japan’s social system still has many advantages.

To survive competition with China, Japanese society needs first to reinstate elitism and keep fostering through education Japanese people’s self-confidence in their perfectionist trait, the Japanese virtue of mutual trust and the beauty of the history of their country. It is also vital for the Japanese to reaffirm the significance of patriotism. Such efforts are not reactionary. Rather, they are the only choice for Japanese people to survive and keep their country from dropping out of the severe international environment amid the rise of China.